2011: the best.
1 and 2. Color Engineering and Garden, by Yuichi Yokoyama. Picturebox/Nanzuka Underground.
I've harbored the opinion that Yuichi Yokoyama was making the best comics of anyone working for years, but with the dizzying one-two punch of these books, he stated it in blazing day-glo letters for all to see. Garden was "lit comics" introduced to hardline experimental literature, a near-endless journey through human history and technology that ends in apocalypse and a hint of rebirth. That hint is ravishingly elaborated upon in Color Engineering, which may prove to be the best and final word in art-comix; a completely overpowering visual tour de force that strips the mechanism of comics storytelling back to its most basic elements before reconsidering them and giving them a polish for this new century. Yokoyama's output in 2011 is best described as a two-part textbook, a map of where it's possible to go -- not just next year or next decade, but next epoch. Like all the truly great stuff, it's better seen than described. I wrote about these guys here, and I interviewed Yokoyama here.
3. AFFECTED, by Matt Seneca. Self-published online.
Whatever, I liked my comic better than all the other ones this year. If I didn't I wouldn't make it! It's mostly because AFFECTED is (obviously) the exact type of content I want to see getting put out there, but there are also things I know I'm doing (because I'm the one doing them) that I wish I saw a little more of on the new racks. A cursory reading of the past decade's aesthetically satisfying American comics gives little to no indication that we live in a nation at war, or that we're experiencing a very real shift in the way we live our lives, or that this thing the internet exists. I also think one of the most valuable things happening in comics right now is cartoonists' folding of the pure-visual punch of last decade's art-comix into more considered literary structures, and the way young cartoonists are beginning to interact more directly with the medium's history on the page -- as critics and commentators rather than just followers. It's up to you to decide whether I'm succeeding or failing, but I'm having more fun doing my best to achieve these things than I am reading any comics. (Besides Yokoyama.) I got interviewed about AFFECTED here and here and here.
4. Obsolete, by Mikkel Sommer. Nobrow.
If you're looking for a perfect comic, look no further. Danish artist Mikkel Sommer's slow-burn crime thriller Obsolete is a stone masterpiece from start to finish, not a panel wasted, not a ropy, scratched line out of place. Beautifully printed, told mostly without words, brutally short and to the point, shocking and touching in the same gasped breath, it's almost frightening in its economy. Single gestures tell of years' experience, scribbled landscapes cough up their fractious histories, and characters flower into vivid life with a glance or a plea. Though Sommer's Frank Quitely-meets-Gipi art and ice-cold sense of pacing and plot are astounding, what's most impressive about Obsolete is its tone, which throws the nervy futurism of Scandinavian crime literature over a heartbreaking Mideast War fallout narrative. It's a lightning bolt from a clear blue sky to see something this accomplished -- we're talking Eisner-on-Spirit, Ditko-on-Question levels of bluntly stated, transcendent genre comics -- from such a complete unknown. After such a formidable display, Sommer deserves our full attention. To my great shame, I didn't review this one yet, but rest assured I will soon. In the meantime you should definitely buy the thing, and then you should read Nina Stone's note-perfect take on it here.
5. 2001, by Blaise Larmee. Self-published online.
In a year of formalist comics, Blaise Larmee's gorgeous, ephemeral 2001 managed to be both the prettiest and the most relevant. It's a stunning thing to look at, filling every computer screen it's spread onto with a minimal, hauntingly evocative black and white world that moves with the verve and decisiveness of youth. Larmee's drawing has developed to a point where it can stand comparison with just about anyone else making comics at the moment, and each panel of 2001 is a treasure, more than enough to keep frozen on the screen and simply stare at. But what makes the comic so exciting is how relentlessly it pushes the reader forward, whisking the eye down and down until the experience of reading it comes just about as close to animation as still images can get. Larmee has found a new acme for webcomics, something that truly can't be replicated on the printed page, and the 2001 site is its home environment, a place not a little bewildering in its beauty, one it seems impossible to get tired of visiting. I wrote about 2001 here and I interviewed Blaise here.
6. Kramers Ergot 8, edited by Sammy Harkham. Picturebox.
The joyous explosions of color and noise and brilliant ideas that were Kramers 4 through 7 are probably the best printed summations of the bull market that comics experienced last decade, comics conceptualized as a (if not the) vital, modern art form with all the potential in the world. It was a creative flowering on a level that's only been seen in comics a few times before. But every wave crashes to the shore eventually, and this new, quieter, more focused Kramers brings the comedown with a laser-beam focus. Rigid, complex story structures bracket in the visionary drawings, the small size of the book pens everything in a little tighter, and the ideas on every page seem to broil at finger-burning heat rather than bursting outward. It's angry comics for apocalyptic times, but beneath the book's dour pessimism (itself a highly engaging virtue) is a picture of a new world for comics, one that has perhaps reined in the excesses of the utopian vision Kramers previously put forth, but one more realistic and workable for that. And all conceptualizing aside, it's got knockout stories from an all-star list of the best cartoonists going, including career highs from CF, Dash Shaw, and Johnny Ryan. I wrote a little bit about it here.
7. Daredevil, by Paolo Rivera, Marcos Martin, and Mark Waid. Marvel "Fuck Marvel Comics" Comics.
Given the current state of mainstream comics, it looks pretty damn impressive when something that doesn't allow itself to be aesthetically compromised by its milieu in any way comes along. Daredevil is just that, a superhero book that wants to be a superhero book and does so beautifully. It's a shame that the most noticeable aspect of this series is its lack of crossover marketing hype, inappropriate attempts at "maturity", knee-slapping editorial gaffes, et cetera, but c'est la guerre: that leaves all the more room to marvel at how well Mark Waid can layer vicious fighting and deft character acting and seamless incremental plotting into page after page of beautiful (and beautifully produced) drawing by Rivera and Martin. It's craftsmanship, not art, to be sure, but this is work for hire that its creators deserve to be very proud of, perfectly pitched as the kind of high-octane escapism the marketing department needs it to be, but also a virtuoso-level workout for the fundamentals of action comics. They don't all have to change the world or even the medium, but it would be quite something if they could all be this beautiful and fun to read.
Honorable mention. Love & Rockets New Stories #4, by Jaime and Gilbert Hernandez AND Ganges #4, by Kevin Huizenga. Fantagraphics (both).
Both of these comics are completely amazing on every level, and are probably better than many of the ones on the list. But they're also both ongoing series that have spanned many years of greatness at this point, rather than anything that belongs to 2011 exclusively. They're not listed, but they're on the list. Read them.
1. Newspaper/broadsheet-format comics.
This one's been boiling up to steam for a good few years now, but it really bloomed this year. What started with Sunday Press Books' re-presentation of classic newspaper strips in their cartographic original size has turned into a full-blown revival of the original delivery method for comics, the massive single newspaper page. It seems like everyone who's anyone in non-mainstream comics (and a few people from across that border too) had something out on a broadsheet this year, and the results are certainly looking like a reconsideration of what's possible in comics. The surface level thrill of simply seeing more from our favorite cartoonists on every page is just as material a part of why broadsheets are great as anything else, but the storytelling possibilities that the extra space is opening up for artists who always seem to be pushing against something in their more traditionally formatted work has the potential to permanently change what we expect from comics. This year Matthew Thurber and Benjamin Marra packed graphic novels of content into a few pages, Blaise Larmee redefined "comics interview", Jonny Negron brought the classic "cutaway view" shot to a Hieronymous Bosch level of head-spinning perversity, and um, Michael DeForge drew the most baller fucking Fantastic Four comic ever. (That matters as much as all the rest of it, folks.)
Of course, the cloud behind the dazzling silver lining is that a lot, maybe even the majority, of cartoonists doing this stuff are still trying to get paid for it. But if that does end up happening, it might very well bring lasting positive change to the economics of comics also. A single page from a cartoonist at the top of their game is as much a desirable piece as a canvas by a master painter, and by encouraging artists to focus on just that -- the page, and not the issue or the book -- broadsheets are reminding us how important every little piece of this art form really is.
2. The risograph.
The what? Get hip fast, son: the risograph is changing the look of comics' cutting edge in a hurry. It's an absurdly simple transition for minicomics and zines: what if, instead of printing your scummy piece of shit in black and white on a normal xerox machine, there was a contraption that allowed you to put some color to those lines? The products, as most impressively exemplified in books printed on the machine by Ryans Sands and Cecil-Smith, come close to revolutionary. Suddenly the cheaply printed, hand-folded, late-night-stapled zines in the corner of the comic shop are the prettiest, most visually arresting things in the building. Riso printed comics are both boldly futuristic in their sense of difference from anything that's come before and strangely nostalgic in the way they put the laborious, mechanically-produced aspect of comics on display in an era of seamless digital gloss.
It's quite something to see minicomics finally put on the equal visual footing with the mainstream that they've always deserved; but even more important are the possibilities risograph printing is allowing the artists who've gotten in on it thus far to explore. The waves of color and printing-machine grit the process bathes the comics it touches in are a veritable tone factory, lending the work an intense tactility, one only enhanced when the ink colors up your sweaty fingertips. Small wonder, then, that the most visible of the riso printed books, Thickness, is also probably the medium's best-ever erotic anthology. New technology, put to new use. A great thing is happening, and it looks as though next year will only bring more of it.
3. Sex comics.
Not exactly new and certainly not universally welcomed, but vital and necessary nonetheless. What kind of case for relevance can a medium present without some truly great erotic art, after all? While it's responsible for a lot of Europe's most lyrical and lovely works in comics, and a lot of manga's wildest excursions into the unknown, pornography has always been a touchy place to go in American comics culture. From under-the-counter sales of bootlegged "Tijuana Bibles" in the earliest days of the pamphlet format to obscenity raids on the saucier undergrounds to the crippling misstep made by the modern era's dominant publisher of intelligent comics, Fantagraphics, in their ghettoizing of porn as a potential-lacking moneymaker, it's been a hard road to legitimacy for sexualized sequential art here in the States. However, that seems to be changing. The aforementioned Thickness anthology is leading the charge, but 2011 also saw a sexy anthology from perennial alt-comics cool kids Closed Captioned Comics, mass market highbrow porn books from crossover superstar Dave McKean and bonafide Great Cartoonist Chester Brown (even if they both totally sucked), harsh-noise erotic interludes in the new Kramers, a killer art-porn webcomic from yers truly, and most importantly, a general acceptance of these things from both critics and fans. It seems as though comics isn't afraid of having a sex life anymore.
What's really exciting, ahem, about this new crop of porn comics is the sense of a wild new frontier they provide. American comics has spent a solid eight decades coming up with eye-popping new ways to show people fighting a few different times a month, and now the other way people have vigorous physical interactions is finally opening up. The formal possibilities are just about endless: Jonny Negron's leapt out early as the man to watch, but fascinating new voices are cropping up all the time, and established ones are rushing to join the chorus. That's not to mention the enticing possibility of translated foreign sex comics coming along to teach everyone a lesson or three, which seems too good an opportunity for enterprising publishers to leave on the table much longer...
Three big ones this year. Tucker Stone's recent interview with Tom Spurgeon is a masterpiece on both sides of the mic (or um, modem), a gentle, often hilarious planing open of the diseased guts of the comics industry -- both mainstream and alternative -- that leaves the question of what to do about the mess we're in where it should be, in the hands of you the passionately concerned. Read it here. Adam McIlwee's postmodern detective story about his attempts to unravel Blaise Larmee's online persona is the best profile piece a cartoonist has received in years, and seems almost like a step forward into a new kind of writing about human identity, one that takes the complications of the internet age into full consideration. Read it here. Finally, the pseudonymous White Shasta's confession to impersonating CF on twitter is full of the same art-and-identity concerns: lyrical, personal, abstract. But it also brings the missing element of comics criticism -- the pictures -- to fully developed life, making it more engaging and affecting a read than innumerable typed works on the medium. Read it here.
JUNK I WROTE THAT I DIDN'T HATE
- On Jack Kirby, Gary Panter, and what we see when we look in the mirror
- My two part kiss-off to caring about Grant Morrison comics
- A survey of the unexplored territory provided by webcomics
- Here's where I singlehandedly beat Drawn & Quarterly out of 2000 sales of that fucking stupid Chester Brown book
- Stealin' Geoff Johns's soul, take it bitch
- Eulogy to Gene Colan, who was murdered by Marvel Comics
- That time I smoked that Punisher comic
- "Idiots", a short story I wrote about my inability to make it work with a girl was dating, disguised as my hugely popular DC Relaunch article
- White Shasta unmasked
- GARY PANTER INTERVIEW
- How we look at comics, I love this one
- Aaannnd, Jeph Loeb makes a lot of comics about his dead son.
COMICS I DREW
Here and here.
Happy New Years. Stick around for more in 2012 if you've a mind.